Your dad makes a round of the house at 6 p.m. each night, just as dusk is beginning to filter out the colors of the day. He’s checking all the locks on the doors and lowering the blinds, sometimes pausing at the windows to peer at some movement he sees. You settle into an armchair with a book and a mug of tea steaming swirls into your nostrils, feet planted on the self-heating electric foot massager.
You are ten years old.
You’ve been unable to sleep the last few nights, for no reason other than the train of your thoughts never seems to stop running. It’s not that your thoughts are troublesome—you mostly think of characters for your stories, various situations to put them in, how they will react—and you don’t have trouble staying awake during the day or concentrating in school. In fact, you speed through your assignments with hundred-percents, smiley faces and stickers, and yet for how boring it is to always be the first done with assignments, to be the one who knows immediately what the last chapter of Holes was about or how to spell “deception” and “chlorophyll,” you are never tired during the day.
You stretch into your blanket and turn the page of the book you are reading. You imagine smugly that this is what adulthood feels like, and that when you’re older you’ll have this same routine every night.
Yet in the mornings when it comes time for school, you’ve found yourself unable to let go of your mother. It’s not the way it used to be, when you were five and you screamed and kicked over your chair and ran to your mother as she tried to leave during the day, oblivious of the scene you were making in front of the whole class. You don’t cry. But you can hardly stomach breakfast, you want your mother to sit with you in front of the library, separated from the rest of your class, until the warning bell rings and she lets you walk to the classroom without her. Or rather, you allow her to leave you. You still are aware of the politics of being escorted to school by your mother in fifth grade.
Your friends don’t seem to notice anything wrong with you, and you are able to socialize with them during the day and get your work done. It’s really just the mornings that are bad, and the evenings when you start to think about the mornings. You’re unsure why. Last summer you grew a pimple on your chin and started blow-drying your hair. Sometimes you still cry for no reason but only when there’s no one around.
Your mother is the one who first brings up going to see the guidance counselor at school. Somehow, you agree, perhaps because you are sick of feeling sick in the mornings. Sick of feeling like vomiting, no matter what she makes you for breakfast, and sick of missing out on inside jokes while everyone else waits outside the classroom for the bell to ring. Later, you realize that your mother must have talked to your teacher about taking you out of class in the afternoons to meet with the guidance counselor. But at the time you do not think of this. It’s not as though you need that extra time in the classroom.
Your mother tells you that the guidance counselor recommended you be put into the gifted program when you first started kindergarten there, but your parents decided to keep you with the “normal” kids. They didn’t want you separated from your peers, she told you. You wouldn’t have wanted that, would you?
“No,” you say, because that’s what you’re expected to say, and your mom seems comforted.
So you go to meet with the guidance counselor, a very old grandmotherly lady with a white perm and a softly wrinkled face. You are there with two other girls, one you recognize from your grade but with whom you have never shared a class, and one girl you’ve never seen before, who is in fourth grade. The fourth-grader is big and muscled and has a black moustache. She looks like she could beat you to a pulp. The girl you recognize is named Amber and her hair is straight and sleek and blonde, and she wears short shorts and anklets and toe rings.
Miss Pierson, the guidance counselor, hands out a piece of paper at your first meeting with twelve simple faces drawn on it.
“This is for you to keep,” she says in her soft kind voice, a lilting Southern accent. “If you’re ever struggling to figure out how you’re feeling, look at this paper and you can help me understand.”
You look down at the piece of paper. The faces are all different and are labeled with words like Sad, Angry, Frustrated, and Scared. But what if you feel all of these at once? you think, but say nothing.
Miss Pierson asks the three of you to draw a picture of what you’re most afraid of in the world. You feel awkward, you only have a pencil to draw with, and you’re sitting here with two girls you don’t know and who don’t know you and this lady with a white perm and a softly lilting Southern accent is watching you draw what you fear most. At this moment, probably what you fear most is what you are being asked to do.
So you draw an upside down U, with grass growing up around it, and you draw short diagonal lines down the page to indicate rain drops. The name on the gravestone says:
“R.I.P. DESI, 1997-2000.” Desi is your pet gerbil.
As you wait for the other girls to finish their drawings, you think of the “spooky” pictures you and your friends used to draw in sidewalk chalk in your driveway around Halloween. One of your friends always used to pronounce “R.I.P.” like the word “rip.” She would say, “You should write ‘rip’ on the stones and then we can draw hands poking up out of the ground.”
Amber and the mustachioed girl, Tiffany, finish their drawings. Then the three of you are asked to share what you drew. Tiffany, on Miss Pierson’s immediate right, is asked to go first. She holds up her piece of paper, on which is drawn a crude stick figure standing in a rectangle, frowning with pointed teeth and brandishing a knife. Another stick figure lies horizontally on another rectangle, mouth drawn as a long “O.”
“I’m afraid of someone breaking into my house and hurting my family,” Tiffany mumbles.
You look down at your own drawing. Of course, that’s what you should have drawn. Your father walks around every night closing the blinds against some imagined threat. He says he wants to protect his family, and of course he does. He says some of the drug kingpins he put in jail while he was a cop in Miami would be getting out right about now, and they weren’t very happy with him and what if they came after him and his family? Your father once told you a story of his time when he was a cop, he was called to a crime scene where a man had been walking home drunk. He passed by the home of an old lady, who was sitting watching T.V. with her lights on and her blinds open. The man pulled out a gun and shot her for no reason. There are all types of crazies out there, your dad said, and they’ll get you right when you’re feeling safest.
That’s what you should have drawn.
Amber drew a heart ripped in two, with two people on either side of the heart, clearly a man and a woman, frowning. “I’m afraid that my parents will get divorced because they fight all the time,” she says tearfully.
You stare at the heart Amber drew, noticing how uneven its two sides are. Your parents fight all the time, too, but you’re not afraid of them getting divorced. In fact, you’ve found yourself wishing they would get divorced so you and your mom could move away from your dad and his paranoid screaming and locked doors and closed curtains. You just want to see the sun set from inside your house.
It’s your turn. Choking up but not at the thought of Desi dying, you explain your picture and feel judged. People should be afraid for their families, you think—how could you have forgotten your dad’s evening ritual? Miss Pierson listens kindly, solemnly, to you explain how your cat was put to sleep a few years ago and how it was very sad because she was the only cat you had known growing up, and you haven’t had Desi as long as you had your cat but gerbils aren’t supposed to live that long anyway.
Miss Pierson asks you all to circle the emotion on the piece of paper that you’re feeling at that moment. Quickly getting your tears under control, you pull up the paper and look at the choices. You take your pencil and circle the face that is sad. You immediately think about erasing the circle and circling “embarrassed,” but you’re too embarrassed to do that. You know the right answer to death is sadness and so, like your reading reports and math questions, you know the answer and you put it down.
As you’re leaving Miss Pierson’s office, you fold up the Feelings paper and put it in your pocket. When you get back to class a boy will ask you where you were and you will repeat what your mom told you to say, None of your business, but the boy will see the letter “F” in the word “Feelings” at the top of the folded paper and say, “You got an F, didn’t you?” You will unfold the paper and shove it in his face and say, “See? It says feelings.” He’ll be speechless and you’ll fold the paper back up and stuff it into your backpack.
But now, as you’re leaving Miss Pierson’s office and Amber is drifting to the bathroom to comb her hair, Tiffany comes up to you and says:
“My cat died a few weeks ago, too.”
You pause and look at her. “That’s sad.”
“Yeah,” Tiffany says, holding the Feelings paper in a hammy fist. “She was hit by a car.”
“Oh, no,” you say, and mean it. You had had nightmares of your cat dying that way, of you weeping over the cat’s bloodied body. “Mine just got sick.”
“I have another cat, and she’s really old,” Tiffany says. She sniffs, and you realize she’s crying. “I should’ve put something like what you drew.”
You almost start crying again, and you think of the Confused face on the paper folded in your hand as you swallow down a lump and blink back tears. Your throat aches as if you had swallowed sandpaper, as if you had been punched. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the sandpaper in your throat disappears down into your stomach, freeing up your lungs to fill up with fresh cool air. And your lungs, it seems, have taken over your throat, for they are pushing air back out and you feel your mouth forming warmly around words that don’t seem to be yours.
“I had a nightmare once,” you say, and it’s as though you’re speaking underwater, “that my cat got hit by a car. It was really gross, the way I dreamed it.”
Tiffany’s pink hand sweeps upward and for a second you think she is about to hit you and you wince, but she just violently slaps away a tear that had gotten caught in her wispy black mustache.
“See you next week,” she says and turns away, not toward her classroom but toward the restrooms outside the guidance counselor’s office.
You watch Tiffany go. You think of your warm heating pad and your book and the coldness of the chair waiting for you back in your classroom; you think about your dad and his paranoia and his illness and his locks. But then you turn and go back to your classroom. You wish you could bring tea to school.